There are few fears that can top the fear of drowning. Actually, there is. The fear of drowning in space.
And that fear was a very real and terrifying possibility for Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during what should have been a “routine” extravehicular activity (EVA) earlier this month.
Although it’s hard to imagine anything being “routine” while orbiting 260 miles over Earth inside a football pitch-sized outpost, the astronauts and cosmonauts who live and work on the International Space Station are highly trained individuals who have an acute attention to detail. So when something does go wrong on the space station, there’s no better people to deal with it. But during this particular spacewalk, the universe threw Parmitano a curve ball.
On July 16, Parmitano was working with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy on the space station’s exterior. But less than an hour into the mission, Parmitano, who became Italy’s first spacewalker during a previous EVA, reported excess fluid was building up inside his helmet. As the problem worsened, NASA mission control told the pair to return to the airlock as soon as possible.
Today, Cassidy has sent a short video from the space station describing the details of what happened to his space colleague.
As it turns out, the water originated from the space suit’s cooling system, and by the design of the ventilation system inside the helmet, water mixed with the air and got blown to the back of Parmitano’s head, soaking his communications cap. In the microgravity environment, the surface tension of the water formed a blob that gradually crept toward Parmitano’s face. There’s little he could have done to sweep the water aside.
Of particularly horrifying note, Cassidy says: “…capillary flow brought the water all around his head and he had water filled up in his ear cups and started to creep up into his eyes and cover his nose. Scary situation.”
“If the water had continued to leak much more, it would have been pretty serious.”
Fortunately, both spacewalkers were able to return safely to the space station interior and NASA continues to troubleshoot what exactly went wrong with Parmitano’s suit.